Designing for Disability and Accessibility: Panel Discussion

In this panel, researchers Triskal deHaven, Dr. Katta Spiel, and Dr. Cayley MacArthur discussed their experience, work, and research regarding accessibility in digital games. Triskal led the panel through some frequently asked questions about accessibility in Virtual Reality and games.

The themes discussed were gaps in digital games accessibility research, how people can get involved in research on accessibility, and the panelists’ experiences and motivations to look at this subject. There was also an open question and answer period where students and researchers were able to ask their own questions related to these topics.

Watch the highlights:

Remote video URL

Meet The Panelists

Triskal De Haven

Triskal deHaven (he/him): Triskal is a User Experience Researcher who uses Qualitative methods to enable video game developers to create their desired player experiences. He has extensive knowledge on Accessibility in Digital Games and Virtual Reality. When he isn’t working, he loves playing RPGs with friends, hiking with his Doberman, or working out at the gym with his partner.

Dr. Katta Spiel

Dr. Katta Spiel (they/them): Katta Spiel is an FWF Hertha-Firnberg scholar at the HCI Group of TU Wien (Vienna University of Technology), where they work on the intersection of Computer Science, Design and Cultural Studies. Katta researches marginalized perspectives on technologies to inform interaction design and engineering in critical ways so they may account for the diverse realities they operate in.

Dr. Cayley McArthur

Dr. Cayley MacArthur (she/they): Cayley MacArthur is a Games Institute member specializing in human-computer interaction (HCI) research, with a focus on inclusive technologies and inclusion in technology. The implications of this work are broad: working on inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility in HCI requires interrogating the perspectives, assumptions, methods, and artifacts encountered in our approaches to research, design, and the development of new and existing technologies.

Key Terms:

The following key terms were highlighted by the panelists:   
Extractive research: Describes instances in research where only one party involved, usually the researcher, receives the benefits, and the other party, usually the participants, do not receive any benefits. Often the extraction highlights a worse part of the participant, and the research process does not attempt to assist in bringing them to a better state.  See “Just Relationships for Research Panel” for more information.
Models of disability: Dr. Spiel highlighted three models of disability. (1) medical model, where disability is seen as something to be fixed, (2) social model where the disability is seen as something that does not line up with the social environmental norm, and (3) identity model where it is seen just as different way of thinking and living in the world.  See “Where’s the Fun in That?” for more information.
Institutional constraints on research practices: Western academic research practices follow a strict process that can often not allow for freedom of different methods that could be better for the research question.  See "Just Relationships for Research Panel” for more information.
Standpoint and Positionality: Your individual standpoint and positionality describes your identity and how your identity relates to your experiences in society. Your standpoint includes identity labels (both visible vs non-visible) that are assigned to you (ascribed) or a form of self-identification (avowed). Positionality describes how your identity relates to your position and power in society.  See “Impact of Genuine and Mindful Inclusion” and “Structures of Care” for more information. 
Team diversity: Game developers put their lived experience into what they create. This means that it is important that there be a variety of lived experiences, ie. diversity, in game creation teams so that the games are created in ways that more people can identify with.   See “Impact of Genuine and Mindful Inclusion” for more information. 

Key Challenges in Accessibility for Games: 

The panel discussion focused on various key challenges in accessibility for games, and how students and researchers can develop strategies and practises to address these gaps. The following section will summarize these key challenges, while highlighting key quotations from the panelists and outlining reflective questions. As you read, consider how your own design or research can help address these accessibility challenges.

Disconnect Between Academia and Industry


Why aren’t games accessible? One of the challenges a lack of knowledge sharing between academic researchers and industry designers. Much of the industry still functions under paradigms that inhibit effective accessible game design. Although there is a good deal of research on accessible game design , much of this research is hidden from the industry though journal paywalls, or is communicated in language that is not easier understood or applied to game design contexts. We must support better knowledge mobilization and translation of this academic work.

What can we do as individual researchers to make our work more accessible to developers and designers in the game industry?

“There is that disconnect between academia and industry, where those ideas take a long time for to actually end up in broader available games. There are many barriers like paywalls, academic jargon etcetera. I do wish we did a better job at disseminating that knowledge so that it's usable for more people,” Dr. MacArthur.

“We still have to ask why aren't accessibility practices not ingrained in game studios practices, and what are the systematic and individual reasons for that? It’s important that this academic knowledge is transferred and accessible to people creating too.” Dr. Spiel

Challenges in Rectruiting for Participant-Based Research


Even in academic settings, it is difficult to research this subject area given the ways academic institutions are set up to work. The most convenient sample of participants is often one that already represents the status quo within technological development. Ethics departments can work with researchers to find ways to equitably diversify recruitment. If disabled folks are included in studies but are statistical outliers, there is a risk that their data might be discarded on the grounds that it is not consistent with the majority. This further removes disabled folks’ narratives from accessibility research.

How and when are we including the perspectives and experiences of disabled people in our research?

“It can be difficult to do this kind of research in a university context because to minimize risk to the university we must do ethics. Especially when you are going through revisions and have to justify why you need to work with a certain group. This can cause researchers to default to working with the most conveniently available sample of people and not diversify.  Furthermore, when do you have someone who is disabled and their data is a statistical outlier, its often discarded and we then we lose that important experience.” Dr. MacArthur

There are also challenges in ethical recruitment and collaboration with disabled participants and researchers that academic institutions do not consider. Research that is conducted within the paradigm that understands disabilities as something to fix lacks empathy and furthers the othering of disabled people, which can cause trauma and psychological harm.

How do the norms and practices of your institution and/or discipline create barriers to accessibility research? And how do those norms and practices fail to ensure ethical accessibility research?
“There is difficulty understanding conceptually the research area of accessibility for games, and one of the issues with that is that disabilities are seen as something to fix. This viewpoint is not very just, as it makes disability research very extractive. Like what are participants getting out of being involved in a research study with people who don’t understand them? You really must make sure that you are not amplifying or neglecting the harm of othering that disabled people face.” Dr. Spiel

Lack of Diversity in Game Devlopment Teams


Dr. McArthur shares that one of the reasons for games’ limited accessible design is due to a lack of diversity both in industry and in academia. If only a certain group is involved who share identities and abilities, then the required interactions will reflect what that group can do, excluding what others may be able to do. Testing the gameplay with disabled stokeholds could be one way of learning actions that may not have been thought about in the design process.

How can you use effective and respectful user testing to learn about the accessibility of your work? What are other ways you can increase the number of diverse perspectives your work process to create accessible works?
“Make sure there is diversity on your team, since each persons lived experience will impact what assumptions they make in the process. If everyone is the same, then you’re only going to be designing for yourselves, and not the diversity of people who may use the game.” Dr. MacArthur

Disrupting the "Medical Model" of Disability


One of the design perfidies that academia has pointed out as a gap into why games are not accessible is how disabilities are treated. Games often treat disabilities as a deficit, thus mainstream games often aren’t created in ways that accommodate the disability in the game play and games designed for disabled people treat disability as something that needs to be fixed. One of the biggest things we can do to address changing our narratives surrounding game accessibility is to continue to educate others on accessibility in games. Discussion can help drive mindset change and inspire people to learn more about how they can make games a little more accessible.

What kinds of gameplay are accessible regardless of ability? How might games contribute to a culture that values the experiences of disabled players?

Access is kind of seen in opposition to what makes a game a game. That is difficult because you don't necessarily need to balance making something a game or making something accessible. It can be both.” Dr. Spiel

“We must shape the culture of acceptance and disability as diversity and not a hindrance,” Dr. MacArthur

Shape/Educate Future Accessibility in Game Researchers


In general, there is no specific academic path that will lead someone to a career in gaming accessibility. Each person finds themselves there in various ways. Dr. MacArthur suggests that the first step in figuring out why you are interested in this area is in the first place.

Is it personal motivation? Do you broadly believe in disability justice? What aspects of game accessibility do you want to improve? From there, you can research the many ways one could go about working on these issues.

“Think about what you want to work on or what you want to improve on. For instance, if there is a game you didn’t finish, try to think about how you can make it better or something.” Dr. MacArthur

“To see students being very inquisitive and demanding that things are not just accessible and then give general criticalness to equity, it's just it's fantastic.” Dr. Spiel